Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

Cairo Diary, July 2: Brotherhood and Defiance

By Laura Dean
Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 9:09 PM

Another astounding day in Cairo, with rumors flying around that ministers, including the Prime Minister, had resigned, only to be refuted moments later. The Tamarod ultimatum, calling for President Morsi to leave by 5 pm on Tuesday has been superceded by the army's ultimatum that it will impose a solution if the crisis is not resolved by tomorrow. The army elaborated today on yesterday's statement, calling on Morsi to come to a power-sharing agreement with other political forces; otherwise, the army will suspend the constitution and dissolve the Parliament, which is currently dominated by the Islamists.

There is shooting tonight at Cairo University, where the Health Ministry reports that four people have been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of the President. In a speech this evening, Morsi was defiant, made no concessions, and included such gems as "my iron will [to remain in office?] is with my people and is unshaken." To most people, 14 million people in the streets might seem like a difficult thing to ignore. Apparently not to President Morsi, however.

We should know a lot more by the end of tomorrow.

A Brotherly Afternoon

A little paramilitary training

Today, I am paying a visit to the Morsi camp, having spent the last two days in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace with the president's foes.

It's a less romantic setting than Tahrir, this intersection where supporters of President Morsi---most of them members of his Muslim Brotherhood---are camped out. Most of them are literally camping---sleeping in tents, resting in them during the day and sharing meals with fellow protesters at night. I even meet a woman who has brought her two small children to sleep rough in support of the president.

When I arrive, I'm a little daunted by the scene: thousands of men in multicolored hardhats (with a few bicycle helmets mixed in), carrying sticks of various sizes and descriptions (flags, pieces of plastic piping, golf clubs). They are milling around. Organized groups move among them doing one of two things. Some are marching and chanting, which one might see anywhere else in Cairo where there are protests. But some are jogging up and down in formation in what can only be described as a sort of paramilitary exercise---something a little like this:

I do what I usually do when I feel uncertain in such situations; I approach one of the few women near the entrance. She and her family, who are selling food and drinks to the protesters, explain the lay of the land and I continue on my way. Not a single person approaches me with any hostility, and for the most part, people are very welcoming and willing to talk.

The refrain of the afternoon is that "we are here to defend legitimacy." Morsi was elected so, give him his four years, and then elect someone else at the ballot box. That seems to be the general sentiment.

Abdel Aziz, 34, from Alexandria---a Brotherhood sympathizer though not a member himself---asks a very fair question: "Why is Egypt the exception of all of the democracies in the world? All of them work by the ballot box."

As for the opposition, a new friend of his from the rally who declines to be identified except by his governorate (Sharqeya in the Delta) adds, "Tamarod doesn't know what it wants." He says the opposition protesters have yet to suggest an alternative to President Morsi.

Fatima Abdel Fatah, 34, one of the few women I meet who identifies herself as a Muslim Sister echoes this sentiment, saying, "We want an opposition and everything . . . but with a goal, not opposition for the sake of opposition."

On the whole, though, critiques of the Tamarod movement---as well as of the police and the army---are muted. People are careful not to portray the Brotherhood in a negative or violent light. Everyone I speak to stresses that it's natural for members of a society to hold differing opinions and says that the media is overstating the divisions in Egyptian society. Others differentiate between the army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, saying the former are of the people while the latter is a part of the old regime. Even the police, the same police who looked on while the Muslim Brotherhood Headquarters burned yesterday, are called "an Egyptian institution" by Abdel Aziz of Alexandria. "They don't belong to any [political] trend," he says.

Despite these gentle words, I can't help but be unsettled by all of the military-looking exercises going on around me, though I am assured several times that the weapons and hardhats are merely a precaution against "thugs" who might want to harm the protesters. The presence of hundreds of men with sticks does give one pause, even when those men insist they are "peaceful" and "against violence."

"We don't want military rule. We want a civil government," says Ahmed el Bahrawi, a 37-year-old engineer from Sharqeya in the Delta. "We don't say religious, because people think [we mean] like Iran," his friend, a French teacher, adds. The choice of the words "civil state" is a bit ironic. In this case, people are using it in the sense of civil as opposed to military rule, but the phrase "civil state" is usually used by liberals here to contrast with an Islamic state---which, of course, these people seek in some form. Changing times, changing lexicons, I suppose. Ahmed then shows me his dirty clothes and says he has been camped out since last Friday; today he took his first shower in six days.

There are other unusual sights. There's a group of middle-aged men, eating ice cream cones, threading their way among the youth with clubs, jogging in formation. Sohail Fathy, a young Brotherhood singer with shaggy curly hair and a bandana encourages me to look him up on YouTube. And three little girls with their father chant "Islamic, Islamic! To spite the nose of secularism!" These are the most contentious words I hear in my time here---and from the mouths of babes.

Several of the Brothers I meet are quick to emphasize that there are many educated Egyptians among them---doctors, lawyers engineers, professors. They are eager to disabuse me of the notion that they are all there because they need money from the state.

Many supporters have come to Cairo on buses in large groups. One man from Sharqeya says he came in a group of around 500. As a march goes by, someone tells me that the group marching by is all from the city of Damietta.

While I am sympathetic to their claim that Morsi was elected to a four year term, the opposition's frustration is more than justified. While the electricity and water cuts, fuel shortages and employment crisis are not exclusively the fault of Morsi and his government, he has taken a series of tone deaf and undemocratic measures since taking office that inspire little confidence that he sees himself as a representative of all Egyptians.

While last night the opposition cheered and chanted after the army issued its ultimatum, tonight it's the Brotherhood's turn to celebrate. Later, after the president's speech, I see this same crowd on TV, jubilant that he gave no ground. And tomorrow, as many people would say here, 'God knows.'

Annals of Presidential Insults

Egypt is a country known for its sense of humor, and political protests are rife with double-entrendres and amusing imagery. In Tahrir Square these last few days, the President has been depicted in a variety of ways:

The Donkey

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A donkey in Tahrir with 'Morsi' painted on its head.

Calling someone a donkey is one of the most common insults here in Egypt and loosely translates to something like 'idiot' or 'fool.'

The Sheep


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The caption says: "Don't say down with the sheep, say down with the pork" (sheep and pork rhyme in Arabic), and the sheep is holding a sign saying "I'm innocent of them [the Brotherhood]." The various Arabic words for sheep and herd have come to be used to refer to the Muslim Brothers, whom their critics accuse of following one another blindly and not making their own decisions.

The Watermelon

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A fruit-seller carved on one watermelon, "My name is Morsi." And on the other, "Step down, Morsi!"

The Watermelon is a trickier one. To call someone a watermelon means you don't know what you're going to get when you buy, or in this case elect, him; you can't tell what's in a watermelon from the outside. "Bateekha," watermelon in Arabic, also refers to someone who doesn't understand, who doesn't get it. From there a friend tells me that a new expression was recently born: "swimming in the melon water," means something similar to fiddling while Rome burns or failing to grasp the urgency of a situation.

I'm told that Morsi has also been shown as a potato on a sign outside the presidential palace, but I have yet to see any visual evidence of this myself.

Until tomorrow, then, I leave you with one last slice of dry Egyptian humor. In a fancy coffeeshop in a fancy neighborhood, this sign hung above the counter:

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"Whatever happens, Happy Ramadan"

Which reminds me, Ramadan begins on July 10th, and it remains to be seen what effect that will have.

For more of Laura Dean's Cairo Diary: